Rethinking Strategy Some Reflections on Political Structures and Accountability

Rethinking strategy: Some refections on political structures and accountability The following remarks were made by senior journalist J. S. Tissainayagam at the meeting of the International Association of Tamil Journalists held in London, 11 October 2014 BY JS TISSAINAYAGAM-22 OCTOBER 2014 It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today as part of this distinguished panel. I wish to thank the International Association of Tamil Journalists – or IATAJ – which has organised this forum. I al
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  Rethinking strategy: Some reflections on political structures and accountability The following remarks were made by senior journalist J. S. Tissainayagam at the meeting of the International Association of Tamil Journalists held in London, 11 October 2014 BY JS TISSAINAYAGAM-22 OCTOBER 2014It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today as part of this distinguished panel. I wish to thank the International Association of Tamil Journalists – or IATAJ – which has organised this forum. I also wish to thank the individual sponsors who back this effort through their varied contributions, all coming together to create this event.So why are we here? We are here because such an exchange of ideas and opinions is impossible in Sri Lanka today. The trend of suppressing free institutions, including the media, which began in the 1970s, has continued, reaching an all time high in the past five years or so. Therefore, any exchange of political ideas other than those which the Colombo regime supports is best undertaken overseas.  Having said that, we have to also understand that sections of the Tamil media which are strongly critical of the Sri Lanka Government’s handling of the Tamil question have come under particularly vicious attack. The reason for such sustained attack is obvious.Sri Lanka’s ruling establishment believed that Mullivaiykal had sounded the death knell on any Tamil future other than a future dictated or supported by the majority Sinhalese. What emerged when the fighting ended came as a surprise to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese leaders. Because not only did the Tamils pursue their right to determine their political future more keenly, but they also focussed their unremitting attention on something else – accountability: Accountability for the multitude of human rights violations committed and continuing to be committed against them.So the Sri Lanka Government targets the Tamil media because it plays a crucial role in keeping in the public sphere certain central Tamil political concerns despitethe harsh restrictions imposed by censorship. I think we could examine these concerns under two headings: a) the quest for robust political institutions that better protects Tamil freedom and allows them to participate better in the political process and b) Tamils’ campaign for accountability for the violation of their rights.But we should know Tamils’ aspiration to determine their political future and to see that their tormentors are held accountable does not involve only the media. It can be realised only through social and political processes in which the media play a part. It might be an important part and guiding role but it will be in conjunction with other forces also at work.The process, if we simplify it, has basically two important set of actors playing critical roles. These roles are not mutually exclusive but are interconnected – each supporting and enriching the other. The first set of actors of course is Tamilsliving in the island of Sri Lanka and Sinhalese and Muslims who support them; the second are Tamils living outside Sri Lanka. This group include Tamils living in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia, Mauritius and other countries with significant Tamil populations, but also the Diaspora of the Tamils from Sri Lanka and important pockets of Sinhalese – many of them activists and journalists – who support  them.I am conscious of the crucial – indeed seminal – role that is played by Tamils within Sri Lanka and their brethren who support them from among the Sinhalese and Muslims in their quest for more meaningful political institutions and accountability. But my speech will not be focussed on that. There are many people here who either live in Sri Lanka or have visited Sri Lanka more recently than when I departed from its shores, and who are better placed to give more comprehensive accounts as to what that role should be.What I would like to do in the rest of my time, is to speak a little about the Tamil Diaspora and how we could enrich the social and political processes towards the twin goals of effective political structures and accountability. To do that I will use some of the experiences I have had when speaking about issues concerning Tamils of Sri Lanka in the US. I do not think that my experience is necessarily universal, nor do I have a tightly knit argument to put forward. What I hope is that this would provoke some questions in the audience. Such a dialogue will, I think, contribute, if in but small measure, to the conversations we should be having: Andwhich the media should lead.One of the issues that come up when you try addressing the Tamil question in theUS and I suspect in other parts of Western Europe as well, is the centrality of the 13th Amendment to any political settlement to satisfy Tamil aspirations. It is sacrosanct. It is the pivot around which the debate revolves. Many believe that the13th Amendment is the mantra for Tamils to win back their rights and equip them with adequate political power to participate as equal citizens in the political process.What many people fail to understand is that the 13th Amendment is already in thestatute books and has been in existence for most part of Sri Lanka’s civil war. But it has proved utterly inadequate as power-sharing mechanism. In fact, even those who seriously believed that it might provide some answers to power-sharing if fully implemented have recommended substantial changes such as the recommendations of Committee ‘A’ of the All Parties Representative Committee or APRC in 2006.  What we have to understand is that fundamentally the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka merely devolves power in certain areas of competence to the nine provinces of which only two are majority Tamil-speaking. The powers include some control over the recruitment of junior ranks of the police and over provincial lands, both which the Government is refusing to allow implementation at this time. The public debate today is that if these functions are allowed, the Northern and Eastern provinces will be able to pursue their developmental and political goals without interference from the centre. I do not want to spend time on arguing the merits and demerits of different types of political power-sharing. Suffice it to say that devolution under a unitary constitution as Sri Lanka’s is, does not satisfy Tamil aspirations to participate meaningfully in the political process or help Tamils exercise their rights in a substantially better way. That is because final control of even the devolved subjects remains in the hands of central government. This includes the power of the Governor – who is the representative of the central government – to veto bills passed by the elected provincial assembly; emergency rule to suspend the legislature if the governor feels there is a necessity and impose central government rule, and others that limit development to goals set up by the central government. We have seen the control the governor exercises over the NPC in the past year as an example.While legal and constitutional powers are one issue, the other is political culture. The sixty plus years of independence has witnessed governments in Colombo pursuing a policy of repression and discrimination against the Tamils. At times they have intensified, at others waned. But Colombo’s ruling establishments have regarded the Tamils as the ‘other’ and Tamil leaders as troublemakers. In a country where such a political culture rules, to believe that Sinhala presidents andSinhala-majority parliaments will not use their power to dominate the Tamils – especially the Northern and Eastern provinces – is naïve. What are needed are checks and balances in the provincial council system to prevent such a culture from corrupting the independence of institutions, not weak institutions that succumb to that culture.To my mind the 13th Amendment is inadequate as a system of power-sharing for
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